How we respond to COVID-19 can serve us well for the rest of our lives

Many of the patients whom I met during my oncology rotation felt hopeful for a cure. They imagined how once their cancer went into remission, they could go back to their normal lives as they once were.

I was struck then when one patient, a 72-year-old male Mr. G, shared with me a different attitude towards his cancer. His father, his mother, and his sister had all died from cancer. He witnessed their battles up front and up close. In their battles with cancer, he had seen that even if their cancers were to have achieved remission, the cancers eventually came back, fiercer and stronger than before, metastasized to newfound more frightening locations.

“Sooner or later, cancer gets you, and it’ll get me too.”

Given this perspective, I asked Mr. G what was even the point of going on, what was the point of living if he knew he was expecting to die.

“I used to think that only after my cancer went away could I be happy, that happiness was this faraway idea that came to me once everything else in my life was in order. But I realized even before I had cancer, I had thought this way … this marriage, this job would come and life would be the way I thought it would be, and happiness never really came as I thought it would”

When Mr. G looked less to the future, he started finding contentment in the present.

“I love every single day now like I never have before. Each day with my grandchildren gives me a joy I never felt before. Every day in nature gives me an appreciation of the beauty of the world as I never did before. In that sense, every day that treatment gives me if a gift in itself.”

Now that we are in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, I do see parallels between Mr. G’s cancer ordeal and the ordeal the rest of the world faces today. We certainly hope for a cure for this virus and hope for a vaccine that would bring the virus into remission, as chemotherapy and radiation would for cancer. At the same time, there is no reason to put our lives on complete pause until that day comes.

If Mr. G learned to love life and loved each day in spite of his cancer, we can do the same with COVID-19. Outside of our efforts to social distance, our fates in a pandemic are largely out of our control. Though what we read about in the news can be sobering, we are nevertheless surrounded by the blue sky, the pure air, the sound of birds chirping, and the blooming of springtime, as we always have and always will. Seldom, do we have such time for solitude and introspection, and the slower pace of life now afforded to us not on the frontlines. Though we have newfound freedoms, freedoms that we have often yearned for, that freedom can be foreign and unsettling. But isn’t it a wonderful opportunity to also discover that we can still find peace and joy in times like these?

For even when the virus does go away eventually, we are likely to encounter other challenges in our lifetime, if not at the global or national level, then surely at the personal level. Rarely, if ever does a human life go by unscathed by some form of tragedy. Our lives won’t be empyrean once this pandemic ends, immune from the feelings of anxiety, fear, and doubt that everyday living can still somehow engender if allowed to. In that sense, it would be ideal to retain the habits that can be cultivated through the trials of COVID-19. In addition to resilience and strength, an appreciation and even an active love, for the present moment are all valuable traits to be gained. True growth rarely happens in a vacuum in times of prosperity. COVID-19 is here to stay, at least in the short-term. But how we respond to and handle this challenge can serve us well for the rest of our lives.

“I used to pray only for myself,” Mr. G tells me as I’m about to leave his room. “But now I pray for all the other patients I meet in the cancer hospital.”

I take a look back at him.

“Somehow, it gives me more peace.”

Johnathan Yao is a medical student.

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